I recently asked myself, as you do, who was my favourite author of all time, for any age-group, any genre, fiction or non-fiction etc etc etc… and, after about five seconds’ thought, decided that it had to be Tove Jansson.
You’ve almost certainly heard of the Moomins and their friends, but if you haven’t, please don’t bother reading any more of this but go and find yourself one of the Moomin books instead. If you had the idea they were only for children, please think again. These cute little creatures with their rounded snouts and velvety skin are not only cuddly and appealing, they are savvy, profound, liberated, inclusive and immensely comforting. They are perfect for a dismal Sunday afternoon when you feel the need to cosy up in a warm place (possibly behind a stove, in traditional Moomin fashion) and read away the troubles of a trying week. You will, I promise, very soon feel enveloped in their kindness, their wit, their acceptance and all their all-encompassing… I can only say moominimity. Try it!
|My much-loved and well-battered copy|
I was introduced to the Moomins at the age of eleven by the headmistress of my girls’ grammar school, who took our English class one day at short notice and presumably did not have anything prepared. Instead of thinking up some boring lesson, she read aloud from Finn Family Moomintroll and I was instantly hooked (although I did hear it as ‘Moving Troll’, which puzzled our school librarian when I later asked for the book). Once the librarian cottoned on, I began to read the other books, which all came out in Puffin during the 1970s so that I was able to buy them for myself. I still have most of my copies, including the hardback shown here, which contains my favourite story of all, ‘The Hemulen who loved silence’. A Hemulen, for those who don’t know, looks a little like a Moomin, though probably neither would be flattered by the comparison. Hemulens tend to be collectors – scientifically-minded, very organised, a little bossy and extremely noisy. So you can see that a Hemulen who loved silence would not fit in well with his peers, and indeed this one didn’t. It's the perfect story for introverts and all who would like to understand them.
There’s also a strange and rather frightening story of the time Moominpappa sailed away to follow the mysterious Hattifatteners, who never speak and spend their lives at sea in little boats, travelling in odd numbers as they search for thunderstorms. Only when lightning strikes do they truly come alive. Moominpappa was almost caught up in their lifestyle, before coming to his senses and sailing hurriedly home for tea on the verandah. If you’ve ever wanted just to sail away…
|My pet Moomin on our kitchen floor|
I also love Moominsummer Madness, which tells the tale of a flood where the Moomins drift out to sea and come across an abandoned floating theatre, complete with lighting rigs, endless racks of costumes and voluminous wigs. We meet a very shy young woman called Misabel, who has lank, greasy hair and very little self-confidence, but who comes into her own dressed up on the stage proclaiming someone else’s lines. She was me at fifteen, to a T.
It’s interesting that many readers of the Moomins find themselves identifying with one or more of the characters. At a recent exhibition of Jansson’s work I discovered that Tove herself identified most closely with Moomintroll and all his uncertainties. Too-Ticky (see below) was based on Jansson’s life partner, Tuulikki Pietilä. I’m not sure who I would be now. Not so much Misabel (better shampoo) – perhaps the quiet Hemulen, perhaps Moomintroll or maybe Snufkin (again, see below).
My favourite of the books has to be Moominland Midwinter, where young Moomintroll wakes up one snowy day in early January while the rest of his family are still hibernating. Unable to go back to sleep, he wanders around this strange new world of snow and darkness (this is Finland, so the sun has disappeared below the horizon for several weeks). His loneliness, fear and sense of displacement are beautifully described – but then he bumps into his adopted sister, Little My, who has no such worries and has commandeered the family’s silver tea tray to be an excellent sledge. Moomintroll, still unsure of himself, meets other friends, including the practical Too-Ticky, The Squirrel with the Marvellous Tail, and The Ancestor, a very shy and hairy version of Moomin himself. By the time the sun noses its way above the horizon for the first time he is feeling much more settled, though he is somewhat alarmed when it dips back down after a few seconds.
I can’t possibly convey the wistful, magical, mournful yet hopeful atmosphere of this book (it also has a noisy Hemulen, by the way, if you like such things). It spoke to me back then of all kinds of important matters, and it continues to do so to this day.
Before I move on to the creator of these wonders, I have to mention Snufkin – the wanderer – with whom I am still in love. Nuff said.
|Two of my Moomin mugs, featuring The Groke, who constantly seeks warmth and light, only to extinguish fires by sitting on them, and the Snork Maiden, whom Moomintroll adores.|
Tove Jansson was born in Finland in 1914 to a family of artists, illustrators and sculptors. Over her long lifetime she wrote and illustrated children’s books, created satirical cartoons for newspapers and magazines, and was a well-respected artist who painted self-portraits, portraits of family and friends, and many whimsical and fantasy scenes. She had strong political views, some of which were woven gently into her writing as well as inspiring her more overtly satirical cartoons, which featured during WW2 on the cover of the Swedish anti-Fascist magazine Garm.
Jansson’s adult fiction, including her collections of short stories, The Summer Book and A Winter Book are wonderful, too. She spent most of her summers with her partner Tuulikki on a small, lonely island which was clearly the inspiration for many of the Moomin stories.
The exhibition I went to was at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Unfortunately it has now finished, but at the time of writing you can see some of Jansson's artwork on the web page: https://www.dulwichpicturegallery.org.uk/whats-on/exhibitions/2017/october/tove-jansson/ (I hope it’s still there by the time this post goes out). It was interesting to see so much of Jansson’s art, including her illustrations for classics such as Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit. (Her interpretation of the hobbits was very appealing and utterly different from the way they are portrayed in the recent films. If you’re familiar with her character The Whomper – there are similarities).
I could talk about Tove and her characters forever, but had better stop. Let me just show you my Moomin pillowcase, a much-loved gift from my daughter…
All illustrations © Tove Jansson
Follow me on Twitter @Ros_Warren